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A couple of months ago, when the COVID pandemic shut down wide swaths of movie and television production all over the country, Manitoba was the last province in Canada to host a major film — the Liam Neeson vehicle The Ice Road, which wrapped March 22.
Several Manitoba productions were postponed in subsequent weeks, including a Lifetime true-crime story titled Bitter Harvest, scheduled to shoot in the first weeks of April, and the first season of a Netflix series called Sentient, which had been planning to shoot from April through to the end of July.
Now Manitoba is looking to get back in the game, and will be among the first provinces to do so, helped by its low numbers of active COVID-19 cases — 23 as of Wednesday — compared with much grimmer numbers in larger production hubs such as Ontario and British Columbia.
(Interestingly, Manitoba played host to one of its larger film productions, the 2004 comedy-drama Shall We Dance?, when its planned Toronto shoot was abandoned in the wake of the SARS scare in Toronto.)
In fact, the province of Manitoba has fixed a date — June 1 — for a reopening as established by the provincial government, which included film production in its Phase 2 list of services to be restored. (British Columbia has also established a June 1 start date to reopen its film industry.)
"Manitoba’s COVID numbers are a major factor," says Rachel Rusen, CEO and film commissioner of Manitoba Film & Music, a government corporation that helps facilitate film and TV production.
"We have been weathering this pandemic very well, as you can see from the number of positive cases as compared to our neighbouring provinces. That certainly provides some comfort to our clients from outside of Manitoba, from what we’re seeing and hearing.
"I can tell you that the phone has been ringing off the hook at Manitoba Film & Music," Rusen says. "We’ve had numerous projects busting to get in."
"I can tell you that the phone has been ringing off the hook at Manitoba Film & Music. We’ve had numerous projects busting to get in." – CEO and film commissioner of Manitoba Film & Music Rachel Rusen
Rusen says she can't reveal specific projects, owing to confidentiality agreements. "But what I can say is that major studio projects are looking to come in, which is always wonderful.
"Out of this terrible crisis is a tremendous opportunity."
Opportunities, yes, but there are formidable risks too. Even as the June 1 date approaches, Rusen says she and her office are still creating protocols to ensure the safety of everyone who works on the film set.
But many producers are already establishing their own stringent rules ahead of returning to production.
Among them, Juliette Hagopian may have a unique advantage. Hagopian is in the process of opening her own 16,000-square-foot production space, McGee Street Studio, in Winnipeg's West End.
The rambling 100-year-old brick building near St. Matthews Avenue is still undergoing renovations, but that gives Hagopian control over the studio space, allowing ramped-up sanitation and social distancing, even as she prepares for the June restart of the Lifetime true-crime TV movie Bitter Harvest, which was postponed in March.
"The whole idea of the space was to have a constant availability to a production office," says Hagopian. "Now I have to change everything in it. I want no-touch taps, I want hand-dryers. I don’t want paper towels."
"It’s not going to be turn-key, walk-in-the-door and go back to work," she says. "You’re going to have to make everything work for your office, for your staff, for your actors, for your locations, everything."
Hagopian started working out her own protocols, some of which dovetail with likely government-mandated rules, and some of which may likely exceed them.
Hagopian says the movie Bitter Harvest will require a director flying in from the U.K., a New York-based actress and an actor from Ontario. And when talent is coming in from out of the country or other provinces, "a mandatory self-isolation for 14 days is required," Rusen says.
"Right now, Manitoba is no different than any other jurisdiction in that regard," she says.
"The whole idea of the space was to have a constant availability to a production office. Now I have to change everything in it. I want no–touch taps, I want hand–dryers. I don’t want paper towels." – Juliette Hagopian
Given that a film set can be a potentially messy place, Hagopian says it will becomes necessary for productions to literally clean up their act as never before. Consider that the simplest prop — a pen, a knife, a paperweight — might be handled multiple times by multiple staff.
"I put five cleaners in my budget for every day," she says. "They just hang out on set. They clean the toilets, they clean whatever. They’re constantly just cleaning. That’s the cost that I have to build in.
"And then I have a nurse in the budget, and a COVID supervisor so if something happens, that person is near the set at all times, supervising everyone’s behaviours and seeing if everyone’s following protocol. Basically, that’s their job."
Producer Kyle Irving of the production company Eagle Vision takes a measured view of going back to work. After all, even in the best of times, film production is a start-and-stop business, with periods of quiet between the manic episodes of production.
"I don’t think we’re going to roll cameras on anything that quickly," Irving says. "The last couple of months have been spent managing the crisis and preparing for what a return looks like, while at the same time taking the opportunity to develop new content and strengthen our own intellectual-property library… while doing everything we can to keep our entire staff employed.
"We’re doing everything from reorganizing to catching up on loose ends," Irving says.
"We want to be first open and we want to be the first back to work, but we also want to lead the way in the right way." – Producer Kyle Irving
"We have a lot of things standing by, waiting for the path to clear, but there are too many obstacles in the way right now," Irving says, adding he is heartened by the government's support of the industry. "There’s a real willingness from the province to get things going.
"At the same time, there’s a lot of work being done by the community to ensure that we have all the right protocols in place for everyone to get back to work safely, so that we don’t have a relapse," Irving says. "We want to be first open and we want to be the first back to work, but we also want to lead the way in the right way.
"We don’t want see the story where we open first and then have to shut down again," Irving says. "We want to get this right and I think, collectively, through all of this, Manitoba has done such a good job of getting things right.
"We want to continue that trend."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
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